The Blog

Memories of Los Angeles in 1923: Setting Sail, Early Motion Pictures and a Romance Gone Awry

 

Author’s note: The following is taken from my grandmother’s memoirs.  She wrote these words when she was 79 years old and lived to be 105.  Her memories are reflective of old Los Angeles from the eyes of a young woman leaving home for the first time. 

This is the first of 3 guest posts from “Letters to My Kids“. Check back soon for Posts 2 and 3.

I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Portland and in 1923, over the objections of my family, I left for Los Angeles with my friend Nora.  We took passage on a steamship to San Francisco where we stayed for two days.  I loved San Francisco from that first visit and even then regretted that I was not staying there.  We continued our journey by ship to San Pedro.  We stayed with my mother’s oldest sister, Polly, for a week or so until we found a one-room apartment in the Westlake District of Los Angeles.  It was all so exciting to us – the palm trees, the balmy climate (no smog then), and the beautiful clean beaches.

My very first job was as secretary to Col. Selig, who owned the Selig Zoo and also the Selig Motion Picture Studio.  During my lunch hours I became friendly with the elephant trainer, the lion trainer and Blossom Seeley, an ex-vaudeville star, who operated the studio cafeteria.  The elephant trainer let me ride the elephant bareback, the lion trainer showed me his scars, and Blossom fed me.  While I worked there, the picture Abraham Lincoln was being made and I watched them shoot many scenes.  The actors collected their paychecks at our office and although I knew most by sight I always made them tell me their names.  I refused to let them know I was impressed!  I stayed there only a few months because the office manager had very handy hands.  Even then there was sexual harassment.

I immediately found another position with the Union Oil Company in a brand new office building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.  All the best stores were nearby, good places to eat, and exciting events happening.  Los Angeles was a beautiful city at that time and there I was right in the heart of it.  I could even walk to work!  My job was not at all that demanding – in fact I often wonder what I was paid for doing.

It was shortly after coming to L.A. that I met a young man with whom I had my first serious love affair.  He was very nice and pleasant but did not have much ambition.  His sister was a famous opera star; I cannot now remember her name.  I never met her, as she did not come to L.A. while I lived there.  Eventfully I became unhappy with the progress of my romance and decided to return to Portland, a decision I regretted.  I learned you can’t go home again.  Living at home after being on my own was unsatisfactory (I am sure my parents felt the same way although they never said so).  I found the climate of Portland very depressing after sunny California and in less than a year I took off for San Francisco with my friend, Ruby Christensen.

How Should I Use Citations In Genealogical Research?

Have you ever begun a new project, gone online to research, or looked through old handwritten family records, and found conflicting facts such as different birthplaces or dates?  Which is true?  In order to judge which, if either, fact is likely to be true we want to find out where the fact came from.  The questions genealogists often ask when looking at a fact are:

  1. Who reported the fact – who was the “informant?” (The ancestor, the grandchild of the ancestor, or the neighbor, etc.?)
  2. How close was that person to the event? (Were they a witness or did they hear about that birth/death/burial second-hand?)
  3. Has this information been re-copied to this document, and can errors have been introduced in the transcription? (By a clerk, minister, indexer?)

Knowing the answer to these questions helps the researcher “weigh the evidence.”  True, it isn’t an infallible system, but it is a good place to start.

The Key: No researcher can begin to weigh the evidence and compare facts without actually knowing where the information came from.   A citation, properly crafted, holds the:

  • WHO …could have been the informant?
  • WHAT …type of record is it and does it have identifying registration numbers associated with it?
  • WHY …was the record created?
  • WHEN …was the record created?
  • WHERE …can I get this record again if I need to refer to it or find other relatives in surrounding records like it?

Citations are the hammer in the nail of effective research

Many of us remember making bibliographies or footnoting our research papers from high school or college, and know that there are standard citation styles.  You may have used the  Modern Language Association (MLA) style, the Chicago Manual of Style, or others.  If you are comfortable with a certain style, then use that.  It is better to use something, and use it consistently, than to not cite your sources at all. You might consider, however, a style beautifully geared specifically for genealogical research: Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book, Evidence Explained.  Regardless, the importance of citing every fact cannot be overstated!

Without knowing where a fact came from, how can you judge its reliability?  If you can’t be sure of your information, how effective can your research be?  When researching, keep notes – in research logs, in a genealogy software program, in a book you are writing.  No matter where you put the results of your research, remember to note the Who-What-Why-When-Where in a consistent format that will be easily understood by other researchers, and by yourself if you find you need to put the research away for now and come back to it months or years later.

Citations are worth the few minutes to note, and valuable for weighing any evidence that later conflicts with your findings.  You will thank yourself every time.

Write in and let us know how having or not having citations have changed your research, we’d love to hear from you!

 

My Grandmother’s Writing Desk: Made of wood and memories

 

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother Frances’ desk.  She was fond of it and I have many memories of seeing my grandmother sitting on the stool in front of her desk and writing Christmas and birthday cards to her family.

My grandmother had the heart of a personal historian.  I remember her sitting at her desk, opening up her journal and making little notes in it – notes about the births, weddings, deaths and divorces in our family.  She also wrote notes about a particularly good game of bridge she had played or having the best score in a golf match.  She wrote get-well cards to her friends and planned trips to see her out-of-town family or friends, all while sitting at her desk.  She paid her bills and wrote donation checks to her local SPCA and to many other charities in the San Francisco Bay area.

When I was just five years old, I remember sitting at my grandmother’s desk. This desk was always paired with a round heavy stool.  I have happy memories of lying on top of the stool, spreading my arms out wide and spinning myself around and around until I was sick.

One interesting thing about this desk is the many hiding places that it contains.  I still gain pleasure from the idea that things can be hidden in the desk in plain sight but invisible to someone unfamiliar with the desk’s design. The hidden compartments are handy places to hide cash, love letters or perhaps even a secret diary – don’t tell anyone, though!

This desk also comes complete with a delicate, tiny brass key, which still works. 

 

 

As I recall being told, my grandfather bought this desk for my grandmother sometime between 1930 and 1940.  My grandmother used it every day until just a few weeks before her death. She died on February 3, 2008 at the age of 105.  After my grandmother’s death, my aunt sent the desk to me by freight truck all the way from San Francisco to Virginia.

When I received the desk, my first thought was to give it a good polishing.  I spent an afternoon cleaning and buffing the old desk.  Surprisingly, during the process, I found some things that had slid under the drawers and behind several of the compartments – a piece of carbon paper, instructions on how to do tubular crocheting, my grandmother’s 1955 Certificate of Members in the American National Red Cross, a recipe for baked fish and a few old canceled checks. Most pieces even show my grandmother’s beautiful and flowery penmanship.

Sometimes I think about having the desk refinished, but then I tell myself that all of the patina and provenance that goes along with the desk would surely disappear in the process.

I don’t think I will ever have my grandmother’s desk refinished. Today, as I look at the writing surface of the desk, I can still see faint traces of my grandmother’s handwriting in the wood’s surface. Her story and the love she had for her family is engrained in the surface of the desk she used for over sixty years.

I am so very grateful to now be in possession of my grandmother’s old desk along with all of its precious memories.  I hope that one of my daughters will want to keep this desk after I am gone.

Do you own a piece of furniture that is considered a family treasure and that holds memories for you?  I’d like to suggest that you write those memories down.  Future generations will enjoy knowing the history of that very special family heirloom.

Planning Your Genealogical Research Trip

We, as genealogists and family historians, are willing to go to some lengths to find information on our family lines.  When we have exhausted the available resources online or on microfilm through LDS family history centers, occasionally we need to take an on-site research trip.  It is an inescapable fact that some of the things we need are only available in person. These one-of-a-kind documents may be crucial to our research. You might be asking yourself, “How do I take a successful trip to conduct family history research?”

One of the keys to success in any research is planning.  If you need to visit a courthouse, county clerk’s office, research library, historical society, or archive, here are eight important steps to complete before you go.

  1. Review the 0nline catalogs.  Find out what their holdings are and make a list of what you want to see, in order of its priority.  Often you can search by a location or surname.  Watch out, many of these have listings for different types of records in separate online catalogs.  Keep looking.
  2. Make a To-do List.  In your list, remind yourself WHAT book, microfilm, or record series you are looking for, WHY you are looking for it (searching for Aunt Mildred’s husband’s name), and WHERE in the building it may be.  Many places have multiple levels or specialized rooms for separate collections.
  3. Check the key info. Check online for hours, fees, parking, lockers, where to eat, and especially closing dates for holidays.  Don’t get stuck at a locked building or spending all day trying to park your car.  I got stuck once because I thought Memorial Day was a perfect time for me to go, but it was apparently a perfect time for the staff to close up too.
  4. Read the Records structure.  Every archive arranges their information differently.  Take time to check the location’s website for an online tutorial, or user guidelines. Ask friends if they’ve had experience there or check the Wiki at FamilySearch, and input the name of the place you are going.  Researchers from all over have shared their experience about places to research, and so much more.
  5. Gather supplies.  What can you take into the building?  Can you take your laptop, scanner, or camera?  What are the photocopying policies?  How much?  Many places will not allow you to use their copier, or do not have open shelves.  Allow for the extra time for staff to help you or records to be pulled.  Are you taking lunch, or packing a small snack?  Make sure you take extra batteries or the charger for your camera.  Not every place has internet access, so don’t rely on getting your information from the cloud. Have a paper copy or information on your laptop or tablet.
  6. Plan for more than one day. If this is your first time at a certain place and you have a lot you need to search, do not expect to get it done in one day.  In all likelihood, you may take a significant amount of time just getting settled and getting used to the facility.  Be realistic about what you can find, and if possible plan for more than one day of research.
  7. Make a Plan B.  Things never work out the way you plan, so plan some more.  If somewhere is unexpectedly closed (power outage or other emergency), where else can you go in the area?  Cemeteries are rarely closed.  The main county library often has a historical or genealogical collection for the area.
  8. Be open to happy accidents.  On my first baby-genealogist research trip I made a lot of mistakes, but I also planned well and it benefitted me every time. On a five-day trip to Genesee County, New York, I found that I was finished at the historical society early one afternoon.  I hated to waste any time, so I pulled out my Plan B.  In Genesee, the county courthouse and county clerk are in separate buildings.  I went to the county clerk’s office because my Plan B was to re-visit the town clerk, but for some reason I couldn’t find the phone number to see if they were still open.  As I walked into the office I stood in line patiently, and an older man walked up to ask if I needed any help.  I told him my problem and he said he thought he had the number in his office.  It turned out that he was the County Clerk himself.  We got to talking and he showed me the deed records.  He was kind, but a little skeptical that I knew what I wanted.  I whipped out my binder with my plan, copies of censuses, and other information and showed him that I knew exactly when my ancestors came into the county.  He was amazed at the organization and looked over at a near-by secretary saying, “Okay, she’s hired.” Needless to say, as I worked he looked over my shoulder from time to time, and would say things like, “I know I have a map for that area over here, would you like to see it?”  There was my ancestor, named on the map.  I love happy accidents!

The more planning that goes into your trip ahead of time, the more you will get out of your research. Why waste time during your trip when you can plot your course before you go?

Tell us your success stories with on-site research, we’d love to hear from you!

Educators and Entrepreneurs: Moving History Forward (guest post)

 

The terms “historian” and “entrepreneur” are not often mentioned in the same sentence.  The historian studies and writes about the past, while an entrepreneur is focused on innovating for the future and taking risks—and in many instances ends up being the one making history.  Historians are not traditionally taught to be entrepreneurs.  In the age of new media, however, this is starting to change.

Changing Curriculums

Students aspiring to careers in Public History are facing unique challenges. In the wake of budget cuts and a lagging economy, jobs are often tough to find in traditional public sectors (museums, preservation, government agencies or archives).  Academia is responding.  At Boise State University in Idaho, Professor Leslie Madsen-Brooks is incorporating entrepreneurship modules into her graduate seminar in applied history, “History 502:  Applied Historical Research.”  The course is about methods, controversies, ideas and ideologies, and the way history gets deployed in everyday life in the United States. The course addresses important questions such as:

  • What is public history, and in what ways does it differ from academic history?
  • Should “the public” be the audience for, participants in, or creators of programs and projects that fall under the banner of “public history”?
  • What role should—and do—professional historians take in public history?
  • How do historians working outside the academy make a living?

The syllabus for the course includes traditional topics such as historic preservation, museums and libraries, ethical dilemmas, and public history careers, but also explores ideas such as reinventing the museum, and the public’s practice of history, analog and digital.  Students are required to purchase or borrow an iPad or similar mobile device, and are encouraged to use them in class to explore digital history and for other course-related activities.  There is a Blog for the course encouraging posts not just from participants but from anyone who wants to share comments. Assignments include a Public History Career Introduction, a Wiki assignment, and an App development plan.

One entire section of the course is dedicated to entrepreneurialism.  Madsen-Brooks believes that being entrepreneurial is a “very useful skill for humanists, along with digital fluency and savvy,” and encourages her students to think outside the traditional career box. A number websites are suggested, including the Association of Personal Historians, Museumpreneurs, and Reel Tributes.

Reel Tributes’ Role

Madsen-Brooks includes Reel Tributes as a link in the “Entrepreneurialism” section of the HIST 502 course because she found that many of her students expressed an interest in documentary film production and lists Reel Tributes as: “One example of a way that a company is promoting history in a way that is useful and personally meaningful to individuals in a public audience.”

Reel Tributes aims to give families the opportunity to preserve the stories (and histories) of loved ones in a timeless film tribute.  Reel Tributes Founder and CEO David Adelman is delighted that his site is being used to inspire students and to educate them on the importance of technology in preserving history.

“It’s amazing to see our company being used to teach grad students about history in a fun and interactive way,” Adelman says. “In the digital age, it’s no longer just about the textbooks and lectures.”

There’s no doubt that 21st century historians face new challenges and that innovative thinking is critical to ensure that future generations continue to learn and link to the past. With so many digital tools available to novices and professionals alike, collaborations between historians and entrepreneurs are likely to keep increasing. We can only hope that this dynamic will promote the study of history in meaningful ways, and help preserve the world’s most cherished moments for years to come.

Lisa A. Alzo is a freelance writer, instructor, and lecturer with over 22 years’ experience in the field of genealogy. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of nine books.  Lisa has written hundreds of articles, and chronicles her adventures in family history on her blog, The Accidental Genealogist.

[Image credit: Library of Congress]